The Weirdest Novels of Harry Stephen Keeler

The Skull of the Waltzing ClownBadly written stories can be fascinating simply because of all the questions they leave unanswered. Why did the characters act that way? Why did the villain suddenly die at the end? Why did the author think writing was a good career choice?

And it’s those unanswered questions that make me love writer Harry Stephen Keeler, often called “the Ed Wood of mystery novels.”

His novels (many of which were never published in his lifetime) feature truly inexplicable plots, bizarre characters and weird obsessions with skulls and human deformities. His “webwork plots” feature vast amounts of different storylines that weave in and out in completely unexpected ways, kind of like R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.” Sometimes his characters simply sit down and read a book, allowing Keeler to reprint a short story of his own in its entirety.

You’ll never completely understand why anybody does anything in a Keeler story, but that’s the fun of it.

While his books now go for hundreds of dollars with collectors, Ramble House has recently been reprinting much of his back catalog. Here’s our picks of the greatest (and weirdest) of his works:

(And for more about Keeler’s books, check out the Harry Stephen Keeler Society or pick up A to Izzard: A Harry Stephen Keeler Companion, by Fender Tucker.)

X Jones of Scotland Yard
When a millionaire is murdered in the middle of an untouched croquet field, Scotland Yard hunts for their chief suspect, “the flying strangler baby” – an infant piloting a tiny autogyro. This is actually the second in a four-part-series about “The Marceau Case,” with each book presenting a different solution to the crime, one of which involves Napoleon.

The Riddle of the Traveling Skull
When a candy salesman accidentally switches bags with a priest, he discovers the bag contains a skull with a bullet hole stuffed with love sonnets. That sets him off on a path that includes overly litigious widow Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel, a janitor that specializes in jigsaw puzzle championships, and a cemetery dedicated to circus freaks.

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown
A young man confronts his safe-collecting uncle about a debt, only to get involved in a story concerning international dress-shirt sales, the infamous Hawaiian mind-control drug “pau-ho” and the unsolved murder of a clown named “Clowno.”

The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro
Based on Keeler’s own experiences of being committed to an insane asylum, this genuinely disturbing novel follows Jerome H. Middleton, the victim of an elaborate conspiracy to make him appear insane and lose the inheritance from his father’s estate. But why did his father stipulate in his will that Middleton had to wear a pair of blue glasses once owned by the French sorcerer Cagliostro every day for a year?

Finger! Finger!
Imperial Japan’s plans to conquer China rests on finding “The 13th Coin of Confucius,” which has been sewn into the lining of a raincoat. Their quest eventually involves a “professional alibi checker,” bootleg magazines and, of course, a couple of severed fingers.

Have you read Harry Stephen Keeler?

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